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It was pitch-black behind the curtains of the high bed. Eleanor woke, turning her head this way and that, like a trapped animal looking for a way out. Some instinct seemed to be telling her, warning her, that there was danger, that she was not alone. She lay absolutely still, terror holding her in frozen shock.
Then she heard him, heard his breathing as he edged closer to the bed. She could feel the sweat, ice cold on her flesh. If he reached her, she would die. If she didn't make a sound, if she stopped breathing and her heart ceased its infernal pounding, if he didn't smell her fear, her rage, perhaps he would go away and she would be safe.
Inching her way slowly up the bed, she peered through a crack in the curtains. The faint glow from the remaining embers of the fire showed the huge, dark figure of her stepfather not six feet from the bed. The light was behind him so she could not see his face, but she could imagine his eyes— slits of reddened lust—and his slack lips.
Suddenly Frederick Atwood reached out and, whipping the curtains apart, stood looking down at the girl cowering beneath the covers. 'Don't move.' He was excited, inflamed by his own lust. His claw-like hand gripped her, pushing her back, bending over her. He held her firm, a sadistic thrill running through him when he felt her tremble.
Eleanor could smell his rank breath, felt his mouth wet against her shrinking flesh. A scream rose to her lips, but it was cut off when his hand clamped over her mouth. Flinging her arms wide his fingers began tearing at her nightdress. Feeling his weight upon her, pinning her to the bed, for a second she was so dumbfounded she could do nothing when she felt his hand slide up her inner thigh. And then her spirit rose to the fore, exploding within her, and she was fighting the vile creature whose intent it was to ravish her. With a cry of revulsion and with all the strength she could muster she forced her knee upwards.
Eleanor's assailant grunted and groaned and fell away from her. Springing from the bed, trembling—not with fear, but with disgust, repugnance, humiliation and fury—she glared at him. In her mind she wanted to run from the room, to find someone, anyone, to tell the world what a vile lecher her stepfather was, but she knew no one would believe the word of a hysterical eighteen-year-old girl over that of the powerful Frederick Atwood, an alderman and influential and powerful merchant in the City—who aspired to one day becoming Lord Mayor of London, a man convinced of his own invincibility.
As though he had read her thoughts, his voice came to her from the gloom at the other side of the bed. 'Don't think you can run from me or hide from me, girl,' he spoke with terrifying authority as she scurried towards the door. 'If you have a mind to run to the servants, then I advise you to think again. They will not dare have the temerity to interfere lest they find themselves out on their ear. I am the master here. My authority is absolute and my word is law,' he said, with that arrogant indifference of his position to those beneath him.
Breathing hard, Eleanor swung round and faced his shadowy figure, her eyes blazing like hot coals in her white face, her small chin jutting out at a truculent angle. As her stepfather struggled to his feet, it was evident he was experiencing great discomfort.
'You beast!' she raved. 'You lecherous beast! You killed my mother with your perversions, even if it did take you almost three years to do it, and now you have transferred your attentions to me. Now you think to dominate me as you did her, to grind me down too, but I tell you now, Frederick Atwood, you will not.'
'I always achieve whatever it is I want, and one way or another I shall have you. However long it takes, I will succeed.' His voice slithered over the trembling girl, menacing and dangerous, but she was not afraid of him. It was one of the reasons why he wanted her so much, he would enjoy taming that wildness, crushing that audacious spirit like a cockroach beneath his shoe.
'Never. I am not my mother. I am tougher than she was— stronger. Like a cat I have a way of surviving in the most dire circumstances and you will not defeat me.' Without more ado she flung the door open and rushed out.
The great house was silent as Eleanor tumbled behind the heavy curtains into one of the window embrasures in the great hall. Leaning her head against the stone mullion, she drew up her knees, so depressed and weary that she could not think. In February Fryston Hall was cold, damp, dreary; tonight, with the fire in the central hearth having gone out, it was doubly so.
When her mother had been alive, the way her stepfather had always looked at her had made her suspect him of unspeakable things. But though he watched her, he had never laid a hand on her in that way—until now. Suddenly Fryston Hall had become a prison that fostered in her a desperate need to escape. While ever she remained she was a prisoner of her gender and her stepfather's wicked intent.
She could not believe she had said those things to him. As a child she had been brought up to show respect, to speak when spoken to and accept what she was told by her elders, but all that had been forgotten in the heat of the moment. She had never lacked courage, but sometimes it was hard to maintain cheerfulness in the face of despair.
If only she could go back to Hollymead—if only her mother and father were alive. Never had she needed them as much as she did then. Hollymead had been a warm place, a place of laughter, as serene and beautiful as a benediction. Her eyes bespoke the sadness of its passing, of the memories that would never again return to life, and she could not stop the welling tears. It had ended when her father, Sir Edgar Collingwood, a knight of the realm and Frederic Atwood's cousin, had been executed for conspiring against Queen Mary, bringing disgrace, devastation and heartbreak to the entire family.
Taking advantage of the widow's plight and secretly coveting her wealth—Marian's own private fortune that had come to her on her father's demise at the time of Edgar's execution had not been stripped from her, unlike her husband's and along with all his properties when the court had passed sentence—Frederick Atwood had befriended her and married her.
Just as though the image of her parents had brought sanity, a calm reason took over Eleanor. She would return to York, to Hollymead, where her Uncle John now lived, her father's brother. Sir John Collingwood, a widower with one son, was a proud man, a man of intellect, a scholar; he had been deeply affected and shamed by his brother's treasonable scheming to prevent the Queen's marriage to Philip, the Catholic Prince of Spain, soon to be king. There had been no contact between Sir John and Edgar's widow and daughter since that dreadful day of Edgar's execution and Eleanor had no idea how he would receive her, but he had always shown a fondness for her and been keen to tutor her in her lessons.
Of course she could always go to her Aunt Matilda at Cantly Manor in Kensington, but she was in France visiting friends and was not expected back for several weeks. Unfortunately Cantly Manor was too close to Fryston Hall and it would be the first place her stepfather would go to look for her, and without her aunt's protection he would bring her back.
And so her decision was made without impediment. Her mind was calm and clear for the first time since her mother had died, her heart alive with elation and hope. She considered the many dangers that could beset her on the long journey north, but she dismissed them in her eagerness to get away. How she would like to leave right now, before daybreak, but it was Catherine's wedding day and Eleanor was to prepare her for the event.
Catherine, who was five years Eleanor's senior, was her stepsister and the reason why Eleanor had not gone to live with her aunt when her mother had died. Catherine always managed to maintain a calm poise throughout her father's blusterings and firmly believed he had absolute authority over her. Like Eleanor, she was an only child; when Eleanor had come to live at Fryston Hall she had looked up to her. She had strived to form a close relationship with the older girl, but Catherine's nature did not encourage closeness—which Eleanor attributed to her father's harsh, unloving treatment throughout her life, although Catherine's sympathy and presence had been a comfort to her when her mother had died.
Eleanor attended Catherine into her bridal finery assisted by two of her ladies. Catherine insisted on her ladies, who dressed her and saw to her every need, being within calling distance at all times. The most favoured of her ladies even slept in her chamber at night, when a pallet and rolled-up straw mattress would be pulled out.
Catherine did not display the happiness usually found in a bride. Her face was submissive and she submitted to the mini-sterings with a quiet dignity as she sat at the toilette table. With her lips set in a thin line, she was holding a hand mirror in one hand, gazing at her reflection, while the other idly stroked the silken ears of her small pet spaniel in her lap.
Eleanor was sentimental about marriage and felt sympathy for her stepsister, which she didn't do very often, for Catherine was a prickly female. She was to marry Sir Henry Wheeler, a merchant of considerable wealth and influence in the city, which suited Frederick Atwood's ambitious bent.
Gilded with a fairness and cold serenity, Catherine seemed without any flaw or imperfection. Accepting that any hope of a union between her and the handsome Lord Marston was futile, she had dutifully and without complaint agreed to marry Sir Henry Wheeler with a dignity that had made Eleanor want to cry, but deep within Catherine lay a part of her that had loved Lord William Marston, and maybe still did.
Having tried and failed to convince Catherine that Sir William was a traitor and a rebel, and that even if he should appear after so long a time he would refuse to consider his suit for his daughter's hand, out of greed and self-satisfaction Frederic had entered into the agreement with Sir Henry Wheeler. But whereas Sir Henry was already enamoured of the fair Catherine and assured theirs would be a happy marriage despite her acerbic tongue, to Frederick it was a business arrangement.
'You look lovely, Catherine,' Eleanor said, shooing the two tiring maids away as she secured the French hood decorated with jewels to the bride's head. Her gown was of richly embroidered ivory satin with a standing collar and hanging sleeves. 'Sir Henry will be quite dazzled by your beauty.' Glancing at the mirror, she noticed Catherine's frown. 'I hope you haven't developed an aversion to the gentleman?'
'No, of course I haven't,' Catherine replied, her tone waspish as she irritatingly shoved the spaniel from her knee. 'Henry may not be as young or as handsome as…' she faltered, biting her lower lip '… but he is not unattractive. He is kind and attentive and to my liking. Father holds him in high regard, and I am convinced of his sincerity to me.'
'But you continue to think of that other,' Eleanor dared to say quietly, glancing round to make sure they were alone. Though the memory of William Marston was still strong in Catherine's heart and mind, she had long since begun to accept that he had gone and was not coming back. 'It is three years since he fled—to the Americas, your father said—and never a word to you. The man is not worthy of your thoughts. Now you have a good life before you—away from Fryston Hall. You must put him from your mind.'
'You are right, Eleanor, and that is what I intend to do. I will be a good wife to Henry, but William was so handsome— so gallant.' Catherine's eyes softened and misted over with remembrance. 'He was rich—although not as rich as Henry, and he was tall—taller than any man I have seen.'
'And a traitor,' Eleanor reminded her coldly, 'if what your father told you is to be believed—and, as you know, he is never wrong.' Her voice was heavily laden with sarcasm.
Catherine's kohl-ringed eyes meeting her stepsister's in the mirror were narrowed and suddenly dagger sharp. 'Why you insist on thinking ill of William, Eleanor, when nothing was ever proven, amazes me. William was guilty of association with the conspirators and that is all. There were those at Court envious of his success and determined to destroy his reputation and prestige with Queen Mary. Thus she was led to suspect his guilt in trying to prevent her marriage to Philip. If he had not fled the country—'
After betraying my father and fellow conspirators. Do not forget that it was Lord Marston who divulged my own father's involvement in the plot.'
'That is circumspection, Eleanor, but if he had not gone away—'
'Run away more like,' Eleanor retorted scornfully.
Catherine shot her an annoying look. 'Think what you like. You are entitled to your opinion, but I suppose if William had stayed then he, too, would have been apprehended and probably executed. But why did he go so far—and without a word to me?'
'I don't know, Catherine.'
Eleanor had heard many things about the dashing Lord Marston, yet none of them endeared him to her. When life at Court had palled he'd escaped abroad and sought fame as a soldier, winning the esteem of a brilliant man of war. Honours came easily, for he possessed all the qualities that favoured a young man of spirit and adventure.
She could not fault Catherine for her loyalty and her rejection of the evidence her father had produced of Lord Marston's involvement in the conspiracy that had been responsible for sending her own father to the block, but after the despicable manner in which he had denounced her father and fellow conspirators and cast Catherine from his life, she was not persuaded that he was deserving of such devotion.
'Nevertheless, he was lucky to escape with his head intact,' Eleanor remarked, not without bitterness, as she felt the pain of memory. 'The same cannot be said of my father, who confessed his guilt. He could not accept the Catholic, Spanish Philip as Queen Mary's husband. He remained a true Protestant to the end.'